Union County Board of Education to discuss N.C. health leader’s letter about COVID-19 protocols in special meeting

Dr. Mandy Cohen says the school board’s decision “poses an imminent threat of serious, adverse health consequences for students, teachers, staff, and the public.”
Published: Sep. 17, 2021 at 3:19 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 19, 2021 at 4:23 PM EDT
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UNION COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) – The Union County Board of Education is holding a special meeting Monday morning to discuss a North Carolina’s health leader’s letter warning of legal action if the district doesn’t align with state COVID-19 guidance.

Officials with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services say their attorneys have had “productive conversations” with Union County School Board attorneys about their safety protocols in order to avoid legal action against the district.

North Carolina State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen recently sent the district a letter asking Union County to comply with state guidance by Friday by 5 p.m., or legal action could be taken.

The Union County Board of Education will hold a special called meeting Monday, Sept. 20 via Zoom. The Board will meet in closed session at 7 a.m. to receive advice from Counsel, followed by an open session meeting for a COVID-19 update and a discussion about the letter from NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen.

On Thursday, leaders with Union County Public Schools were further explaining their controversial decision to end contact tracing and quarantining.

Cohen said the school board’s decision “poses an imminent threat of serious, adverse health consequences for students, teachers, staff, and the public.”

NCDHHS also said they were looking into what actions will be taken in Lincoln County. The department had not previously mentioned Lincoln County as an area of concern, but the Lincoln County school board did recently vote 5-2 to be mask-optional starting Sept 29.

According to WBTV’s news partners with The Charlotte Observer, Lincoln County school board members also agreed to end most quarantining of students and staff, according to a Charlotte Observer review of a recording of the meeting on the school system’s YouTube channel.

Contact tracing will remain the responsibility of the county health department, board members said at the meeting.

The full Friday statement from NCDHHS is below:

“We all share the same goal of keeping our students, teachers and staff in the classroom where children learn best. Excluding students from school should be a last resort. The guidance and recommendations in our StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit are designed to safely keep students in classrooms. Our attorneys have had productive conversations with attorneys for the Union County Board of Education, and we are hopeful that we can avoid further legal action. We are currently looking at what actions will be taken in Lincoln County. Again, it is our hope that we can work together. Our priority is to protect student, staff and community health,” the statement reads.

Related coverage:

Union County teacher resigns after UCPS board’s controversial decision regarding contact tracings, quarantines

Union County school board doing away with contact tracing ‘flies in the face’ of health officials, group says

She wrote isolation is required for all presumptive or confirmed cases of COVID-19 and quarantine is required for close contact of someone who is positive, with certain exceptions. Exceptions for those without symptoms include:

  • Staff and students who are fully vaccinated. These individuals do not need to quarantine based on exposure.
  • Staff and students who have had a COVID-19 infection in the past 90 days do not need to quarantine based on exposure.
  • Students do not need to quarantine when face masks are used appropriately by both the student with COVID-19 and the potentially exposed student.

Read the full letter here.

On Wednesday, Union County Public Schools released a lengthy statement on their website explaining how they came to the decision to end contact tracing and quarantine protocols.

The district’s letter did not say it was a response to Cohen’s letter. According to the statement, the decision came after “unsuccessful attempts to work with the Union County Health Department.” District leaders said they were told, in writing, by the local health director that “he has neither directed UCPS to use any particular length of quarantine period nor mandated UCPS follow any particular control measures regarding COVID-19.”

According to the district, the fact that they were not under any sort of a directive came as a “surprise.”

District leaders said they will: continue to report positive cases to local health officials; isolate students and staff if they have Covid-19 symptoms or test positive; communicate with parents when there is a positive case at a school; support the efforts of the local health department to contact trace; and support parents, students and staff in their decision on whether to wear face masks.

WBTV’s Paige Pauroso spoke with Union County Board of Education member Rev. Jimmy Bention who said they will continue to work with the health department, they are just not the ones leading the charge.

“The state health director and the local health director are the ones who are authorized to write letter of quarantine,” Bention said. “We inform them that we are aware of someone declaring a case of COVID and them saying to us there is a case of COVID. That exchange will not cease.”

He says the local school board does not have authority to issue a quarantine to non-positive students and staff, instead it’s their jobs to assist the health department in doing so.

The district also noted they will continue to follow any mandated control measures including quarantine orders implemented by state and local health officials that have the authority to do so.

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